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Examining the Buffalo Bills’ red zone scoring regression

The offense is less successful in the red zone this season. Why?

When quarterback Josh Allen was stuffed on a potential game-winning fourth-down sneak late in a Week 6 loss to the Tennessee Titans, the play call drew the ire of many Buffalo Bills fans and armchair quarterbacks around the league.

And no, we’re not debating head coach Sean McDermott’s decision to go for the win down 34-31 on the road against the Titans (it was the right call in this writer’s humble opinion). That’s not the point of this article.

While the Bills (4-2) went into their Week 7 bye sitting in first place in the AFC East, the setback vs. the Titans reminded Bills fans that, unlike during a record-setting 2020 campaign, these Bills have consistently struggled to finish off scoring drives in the red zone.

Against Tennessee, the Bills drove into the red zone five times and came away with two field goals, two touchdowns, and the failed sneak by Allen.

During Buffalo’s only other loss this season, a 23-16 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers to open the campaign, the Bills managed only one touchdown on four trips inside the red zone.

For the season, despite leading the league with 29 red zone drives (heading into Sunday’s games), Buffalo has capped a trip into the red zone with a touchdown on 55.2 percent of its drives, seventh-worst in the NFL.

That figure pales in comparison to 2020, when Buffalo scored a touchdown on 62 percent of its trips inside the red zone.

The Bills have booted 12 field goals in the red zone, three more than any other team in the league, including a pair of field goals on two of Buffalo’s first red zone trips vs. the Titans.

Only the New York Giants (45 percent), Indianapolis Colts (46.15), Detroit Lions (47.62), Denver Broncos (50), Washington Football Team (50), and the New York Jets (53.85) have scored fewer red zone touchdowns than the Bills. Those teams have a combined record of 11-30.

So what can we look at as the biggest reasons for Buffalo’s decline in red zone scoring efficiency? Unlike last year, when opposing defenses brought pressure on Allen in the red zone on 37 percent of such plays, this year, opposing defenses are dialing back the blitz, bringing the extra pressure on just 22 percent of snaps in the red zone, according to research conducted by ESPN Stats & Info.

According to research done by Cover 1, opposing defenses are turning to three-man rushes to get pressure on Allen on more than 30 percent of snaps inside the 20, generating pressure on Allen 45 percent of the time when deploying a three-man rush.

With more bodies dropping back into coverage and smaller windows for Allen to find his talented wide receivers, Allen has thrown only one red zone touchdown in 2021, compared to 12 all of last year.

And while Allen has demonstrated his prowess as a rushing threat in the red zone, with teams dropping more defenders into coverage, Allen is finding there’s less real estate for him to scramble and roam when Buffalo crosses the opposing 20-yard line. Allen has scored one touchdown on his 11 red zone rushing attempts this year, compared to six touchdowns on 18 designed red zone scrambles in 2020.

Add it all up and it explains why the Bills have struggled to finish off their red zone drives with touchdowns instead of field goals. The good news for Allen, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and Buffalo’s offense is this: despite an offense that has frequently stalled out in the red zone, the Bills still rank second in the NFL in scoring average (33.8 points per game).

That and there’s still 11 weeks remaining in the regular season for Allen and the offense to rediscover its 2020 red zone scoring magic.